On Sunday, the combined forces of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (BBC NOW), the BBC Concert Orchestra, a quartet of soloists and nine choirs – adults and children – come together for Havergal Brian’s rarely heard Gothic Symphony, the longest ever composed at just under two hours. Martyn Brabbins is the conductor charged with bringing it all together.
So, you’re in charge of the biggest Prom of the season, both in terms of performer numbers and, arguably, in terms of profile. That must have loomed large in the diary for some while?
I treat all music very much in the same way. I would be just as excited about conducting, say, a Mozart symphony as I would the Gothic. It’s on a much grander scale, of course, but as a conductor you have to treat everything with the same level of preparation, with regards to both rehearsal and motivation for the performance. I suppose, though, that when you’re dealing with a Mozart orchestra it’s going to be physically much less demanding than the 1000 or so performing the Gothic.
Compared to other super-sized symphonies, such as Mahler’s Third and Eighth, performances of the Gothic have been as rare as hen’s teeth over the years. Has it been under-represented?
Yes, for sure. It’s partly because of the forces needed, but also because it has not captured the public imagination in the same way as Mahler’s symphonies. All of Havergal Brian’s works are, sadly, neglected. He was quite popular before the First World War, but then things took a real dive. I’m reluctant to say this, but the Gothic has also never had a really first-class performance – even on disc – so it’s not had a chance to show its real worth. It’s very impressive and very attractive music, in fact.
How good, in all honesty, is it?
There are elements that are weaker than others, but on the whole I find it a strong piece. The orchestral movements work fantastically well: a strong, fast, sonata-form Allegro first movement; a very lovely five-in-a-bar funeral march slow movement; and then a rollicking scherzo, that is almost Brucknerian at times. And then you go into the culmination that is the Te Deum. As with all of Brian’s music, it’s very unpredictable. As a listener, he wrongfoots you – you think it’s going to go one way, and it goes the other. The Gothic doesn’t end in a blaze of glory, which I think Mahler, who had an eye for a dramatic musical effect, would have done. Brian doesn’t do that. He also doesn’t do transitions. You get one idea, and then another idea. Just like that.
So Havergal Brian himself wasn’t a Mahler-style showman, then?
Not at all. On Sir Adrian Boult’s recording of the Gothic, there is an interview with Brian, and you get a real sense of his humility. He had no big or profound thoughts, it seems. He was a very simple, humble man from Stoke-on-Trent who married very early, had a lot of children, married again, had a number of different jobs, was largely self-taught and so on. Henry Wood encouraged him to write the Gothic, and encouraged him to write a part for every instrument in every family, which he did. He had no eye to any performance.
Does the fact that the Gothic is so rarely heard increase the pressure on you to provide something special?
The pressure doesn’t enter my head. That said, at one point in our conversations [Proms controller] Roger Wright said to me that this will be the best performance the piece has ever had. And, really, it ought to be, given how we’ve put it together. The choruses are all top class and have been working very hard at it – the choral element is the most challenging. Some of the Te Deum is fiendishly chromatic and it’s a 55-minute movement, which is very demanding physically. We’ve also got a voice of experience with us in David Murray, the director of BBC NOW, who was involved in Ole Schmidt’s performance of the Gothic at the Albert Hall in 1980. He knows what did or didn’t work on that occasion.
And for you personally, an exhausting day at the office?
I can imagine what it will be like conducting the orchestra, but moving a 600-voice adult choir, plus 150 kids… I don’t know what that’s going to be like, to be quite truthful! We’ll just have to wait and see!
Interview by Jeremy Pound